Though it originally started as a tiny, local, more jazz-focused festival, Helsinki’s Flow has grown into something different by 2015. It had record attendance this year — its eleventh — but at 70,000 people over the course of the weekend it’s still small and pretty intimate compared to monoliths like Glastonbury or Coachella. If you go to a lot of these things, this is the nicer option: it makes for a navigable festival that’s less of a shitshow, one where you can actually maybe manage to see every artist you’re interested in. Flow has one big mainstage, two tents, and something called the Bright Balloon 360 Stage, which was a circular stage under a giant balloon and surrounded by four small-ish sets of bleacher-style seats. The manageable size means it’s easier to experience the other element of these European festivals. It’s different to go to Helsinki for Flow instead of like, Chicago for Lollapalooza (at least, speaking from an American perspective). Part of the point of these things is a showcase for the local culture, and akin to something like Iceland Airwaves, Flow now boasts lineups that have some of the international headlining heavy-hitters mixed in with national talent, and a focus that spreads out to food and drink and meeting locals and actually getting to know Helsinki a bit.
Flow is situated in an old industrial area called Suvilahti. From where I was staying, you could walk along the water to the festival grounds. There’s a bicycle parking lot outside, because it’s Europe. An old power plant looms over the grounds themselves; there’s a skeletal old gas container flanking part of the mainstage area with “Make Sense Not War” graffitied on its base. There are repurposed old structures, turned into offices and a brewery, in the area between the mainstage and the tents. Altogether it has much more of an urban vibe than a lot of other festivals, feeling like it’s actually another element in the overall organism of Helsinki, since it isn’t situated in a massive park on the outskirts of the city or something similar.
Since Flow occupies the same weekend as Oslo’s Øya and Gothenburg’s Way Out West, a lot of American artists play all three, hopping from one country to the next each morning. Several of 2015’s festival stand-by types showed up and did their thing exceptionally, as usual. The War On Drugs continued to support last year’s Lost In The Dream, but they’ve grown as a live act, finding a more muscular sound live than they had in the past; instead of wandering haze, their dense instrumentation onstage sounds like the constant churn of storm clouds. Run The Jewels played late on Friday and brought their still-not-old bag of tricks, down to El-P’s requisite warning before (“Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” this time in the informing everyone near the front that if they were clean and wanted to stay that way, they should move. The song sounded like a goddamn apocalypse. Future Islands, like the Drugs, are still on the road for their breakthrough last year, and it was amazing to see both groups over here, still getting better in front of crowds that are growing more fervent. That was the pulsating party to end Saturday, vs. Sunday which had Flying Lotus playing a short-ish set heavy on the spacier end of his music as a slowburn sunset occurred behind the Black Tent. (One of the more surreal elements of this festival is that it stays light late, and seems to take forever for the sun to set entirely.) After FlyLo was Florence + The Machine, who continued their streak of being at every festival everywhere this year, and leaving a completely euphoric wreckage in their wake.
Mixed in amongst all the usual suspects were a bunch of bands from Finland or elsewhere in Europe, artists who might not be well-known stateside but drew a ton of excited fans here. Finnish synth-pop duo LCMDF played Saturday afternoon, and despite having a prohibitively early slot for a festival crowd, wound up filling the tent they were playing in. Their set featured a lot of new material, big brash pop that had hints of Charli XCX here and, occasionally, hints of M.I.A. elsewhere. In a similarly early time slot on Sunday, the dubiously-named Norwegian band Kakkmaddafakka brought a bunch of slick disco-infused indie-rock to the Bright Balloon stage, and drew enough listeners that three massive streams of people spread out from the small circle within the bleachers around the stage. Maybe it was due to the circles I was hanging in, but it seemed everyone I met in Finland was in a shoegaze band or had worked with shoegaze bands. (Which, if you’re living in a country that oscillates between points of the year when there is almost no night, or almost no day, seems like it would be an appealing genre.) Apparently, though, the big thing here is hip-hop and some of the other Finnish artists on the bill, like Paperi T, came from that world. Whether it was there or for American artists like Tyler, The Creator, rap got a massive response during the weekend. So much so that after Future Islands’ set, Finns backstage were talking to frontman Samuel T. Herring about rap verses and his side project Hemlock Ernst rather than the band he got famous with last year.
— Pet Shop Boys (@petshopboys) August 16, 2015
The flipside of the international stand-by bit is that European festivals can often have unique headliners. This time around, that meant Pet Shop Boys. Besides the mainstage sound becoming perplexingly and frustratingly quiet for their Saturday night set, it was pretty revelatory. I don’t go for theatricality too much, but the production behind Pet Shop Boys was often odd and perfect for their aesthetic, with the duo donning a mirrorball helmet or jackets made of some weird, long, black spines, or being flanked by dancers in red suits and some kind of minotaur masks. It was some nightmarish Pop Art approximation, which fit in perfectly with their luxe moodiness.
The one disappointing thing about Flow is the one disappointing thing about every festival, which is that Sunday can easily feel a little anticlimactic even if it has people like Florence + The Machine and Beck bringing stunning greatest hits sets. To Flow’s credit, it does have a ton of things going on, and it doesn’t feel like it particularly wants to end on Sunday. After each night of the festival — the first two of which went later — there were after-parties throughout Helsinki, from sanctioned ones in known clubs to illegal pop-ups in some unrefined concrete room in some warehouse, with maybe forty or fifty people dancing in a dark cave of a room until several hours after the sun’s risen again. Sunday had one of the biggest after-parties (but it’s also the day everyone brings their kids to the festival). There were rumors of a secret Beck show, which were apparently false. I wound up in the basement of a pizza place with friends, watching a famous Finnish DJ named Jori Hulkkonen. For a festival experience that was defined by somehow finding myself in hidden spots all around Helsinki, actually getting to know the place amidst the festival weekend, it was a fitting way to end Flow.
Last show of the year in Helsinki. Thanks everyone! pic.twitter.com/DZsnSvTokq
— Beck (@beck) August 17, 2015